The gardens of Dumbarton Oaks are spectacular throughout the year. But during the spring, they are somehow even more beautiful. But the beauty comes in successive waves. Visit only once a season, and you might miss out. Or even if you do visit at a perfect moment, you might simply miss out on some corner of the gardens that are especially gorgeous that day.
GM spends every spring carefully timing his visits to the gardens to maximize the best parts. And its only fair that he share this knowledge with the public. So without further ado, here is a Users Guide to Dumbarton Oaks in the spring.
The guide is broken down by the particular attraction and when to visit to see it. Weather obviously can affect the timing a great deal. So if you are really eager to see one or more of the vernal shows below, it’s best to check it out on the early side and come back again if you’re too early.
Refer to this map on the gardens’ website for where to find the exact locations of the scenes below.
One of the first displays of spring in the gardens is the Plum Walk. It’s a row of about a dozen plum trees that blossom with strikingly purple flowers. Like many of the items on this list, it is perfect for portraits, particularly of couples. When it’s in bloom, you often find newly engaged couples posing along the walk.
It is typically in bloom early to mid March. When GM visited last weekend, it looked just about ready to pop and will probably be in full bloom by March 1st.
At the far northwest corner of the gardens is a massive planting of forsythia. This shrub breaks out early in the spring with a lively display of yellow. With such a huge area covered with nothing but the plant, it creates a huge wall of the color.
Forsythia is subject to extremely early blooming in the DC area, if there is a stretch of warm weather. GM has seen it blooming in sunny spots this year as early as January due to the heat. But Forsythia Hill in Dumbarton Oaks is somewhat tucked away from the sun. As of last weekend it still hadn’t bloomed. Expect it to be in bloom by the first week or two of March.
Saucer magnolias are one of the harbingers of true spring in DC. Walk on the right blocks at the right time, and your nose is filled with the intoxicating scent of the tree’s lovely pink and white flowers. (Of course, they are also delicate flowers that can be destroyed overnight if a frost hits).
Dumbarton Oaks has several large saucer magnolia trees, primarily along the Box Walk. Wander the gardens and it’s a toss up what will hit you first, the sight or the scent of these fragrant beauties.
The saucer magnolias bloom normally around mid March.
Cherry Blossoms on Cherry Hill
Dumbarton Oaks has one of the most impressive orchards of cherry trees in the area. It is located at the northeast corner of the gardens, overlooking the adjoining Dumbarton Oaks Park.
The gently sloping hillside is a perfect spot to lie on the grass and stare at the little puffs of flowers above. Even when the hill is crowded with people seeking the same serene experience, the grove is peaceful.
The cherries bloom the same time they do all over the area, which is generally late March into early April.
Cherry Blossom Snowfall
Catching the cherries at peak bloom is great. But the real show comes the week after, when the blossom come down in a blizzard of dropping petals.
It’s tough to time it just right, as it might fall midweek when you’re stuck at work, but if you catch it just right, it’s a real treat.
The elegant herbaceous border garden comes alive in mid April, when its scores of tulips are on display.
GM has been using a lot of superlatives here. And they’ve all been justified. But he struggles to come up with adequately intensified adjectives to describe the wisteria vines at Dumbarton Oaks. Words simply fail.
They appear at several spots around the garden, including outside the Orangery, and along the lawn directly behind the main house. But the densest grouping is in the Pebble Garden. Ancient, thick and gnarled vines weave through the garden’s screens and create a wall of purple, dangling grape-like clusters of flowers. The scent rivals the magnolias for sweetness. And swarms of bees descend to get drunk off the nectar.
The wisteria typically blooms in late April.
Hopefully this guide will help you take most advantage of the best that spring has to offer at Dumbarton Oaks. But really, any trip there will be worthwhile.